Film

‘Pride And Prejudice And Zombies’ Review: Yep, It Is Definitely Both Of Those Things!

You may have to pick which one you're after.

In some way, it’s probably best if you don’t think too hard about this. It’s got Pride and Prejudice. It’s got zombies. If you like both those things, you might like this!

While Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 experiment in genre-mashup literature hewed as closely to Jane Austen’s plot and dialogue as you can get while adding zombies, writer/director Burr Steers has added more original elements in adapting it to film. Steers has, ahem, fleshed out a Georgian England that feels more historically plausible than irritatingly anachronistic, along with a new zombie-doomsday plotline that operates in parallel to Austen’s familiar story.

It’s smart and self-aware enough to avoid being a complete debacle. But it still feels as if it’s trying to have an each-way bet: its two constituent elements never really mesh satisfyingly and horror fans may be disappointed… importantly, it does get the Pride and Prejudice bits right.

An Allegory Without Brains

Zombies are richly allegorical. As a shambling, undifferentiated mob reduced to a craving for flesh and brains, they often enable a political critique of consumerism, while their grotesque, decomposing bodies represent anxieties over social decay and contamination ranging from racism to nuclear fear. Zombie apocalypse stories also explore personal reinvention and fantasies of community, ranging from individual libertarian survivalism to utopian ideals of co-operation and sanctuary.

What’s interesting about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is how easily it folds zombies into Georgian England. Society may be under siege, but the status-oriented social rituals so pleasantly familiar from Jane Austen’s novels have merely adapted to encompass “the afflicted”. We learn in an establishing voiceover from Mr Bennet (a dryly funny Charles Dance) that England’s 18th-century trade expansion has brought back a mysterious “plague”, the horrors of which have driven King George mad. London has been walled off by a magnificent neoclassical “Grand Barrier”, and moated by the “Royal Canal”. Rather than fighting the Napoleonic Wars, the British direct their military efforts to exterminating the undead.

The upper classes retreat to fashionably fortified country estates, and along with embroidery and music, accomplished young ladies learn the warrior arts of the East — “Japan, for the wealthy; China, for the wise”. So Elizabeth (Lily Collins), Jane (Bella Heathcote) and the other Bennet daughters have studied Shaolin kung fu, which they regularly practise in the cellars at Longbourn. They’re also handy with muskets and pistols.

It’s droll that the zombie twist explains Austen’s more arbitrary plot mechanisms, such as why Netherfield Park was empty in the first place, or why a militia randomly decides to encamp at Meryton, Hertfordshire. I liked that snobbery over Japanese versus Chinese martial arts animates the conflict between Lizzy and Caroline Bingley (Emma Hurst), while it speaks volumes about Parson Collins (Matt Smith) that he refuses to carry the Bennet sisters’ muskets.

However, it was intensely frustrating that the film makes allegorical gestures in which it later seems to lose interest. Austen’s original anxieties are about class, and this film depicts an elite defending themselves violently against social climbers and the ravening poor. Prideful Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) is a military investigator who stamps out incipient zombies in the community — which helps explain his aloofness. And appropriately, his wealthy, haughty aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) is a renowned zombie slayer. Both these characters only learn to respect Elizabeth once they appreciate her commitment to class warfare.

Yet the film seems untroubled by its own low emotional stakes around all this. Nobody seems to grieve the deaths of their friends and neighbours; the Netherfield ball segues briskly into the Netherfield corpse bonfire. And, despite Darcy’s profession, Steers never really locates tension or pathos in ‘zombie infectees’.

The film similarly never follows through on its early postcolonial suggestion that the zombie plague is karmic punishment for the atrocities of English mercantile capitalism. The zombie mythos itself comes from 17th-century Haiti, where African slaves imagined something worse than their brutal subjugation: an eternal, soulless slavery that not even death could end. And this fraught history of race relations is never far away from modern zombie stories: whether it’s the doomed black hero of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) or the ravaged former Confederate country in The Walking Dead.

On one level, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies seems to understand the potential of this mythos. Yet it squanders it by cherry-picking the zombie tropes it wants to use, seemingly at random. The zombies behave basically as needed for the plot, talking and moving much like the living except for easy-to-spot facial decomposition.

A Lively Romance, Not An Undead Costume Drama

The film’s key image is the visual incongruity of beautifully dressed Regency ladies shooting, clubbing and slashing their way through an onslaught of attackers, with stony badass looks on their faces.

When I saw the trailer, I was really worried the film would sacrifice everything that makes this story so charming in pursuit of making it look this ‘badass‘ onscreen. The anachronistic costumes particularly threw me, which only worsened when I learned Hot Topic was releasing a tie-in range of trashy goth corsets. I’m still pretty mad about the tiny puffy bloomers, thigh-slit gowns and incongruously Lycra-like fabrics that costume designer Julian Day puts on the Bennet sisters, so they can strap sidearms sexily to their thighs.

But these really are minor complaints. One of the great things about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it resists the temptation to flaunt how ‘cool‘ its premise is.  It’s no Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Instead, it’s a youthful, enjoyable Pride and Prejudice that just happens to contain zombies. It has all Austen’s main story beats, amplifies her playful social comedy, and literalises her verbal jousting as physical duelling.

After the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice indelibly shaped Darcy as a brooding fetish object for the female gaze, it also even includes the mandatory lake scene:

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However, Riley’s ironic, gravel-voiced Darcy adds something refreshingly contemporary to a character we’ve seen so many times before. As his feisty equal in love and war, I liked Lily James much better here than in last year’s Cinderella. Bella Heathcote (of the underrated Dark Shadows) and Douglas Booth (in Romeo and Juliet mode rather than Jupiter Ascending) bring an earnest sweetness to Jane and Bingley; two roles that can all too easily turn weak and simpering.

The vibe from the wider ensemble cast is of good-natured enthusiasm. Lena Headey relishes a broader take on her trademark severity, while Jack Huston’s Wickham has dash, and more than the usual degree of villainy. Sally Phillips, who played Bridget Jones’s foul-mouthed bestie Shazza, is an excellent Mrs Bennet — not a shrill, empty-headed fusspot, but a relaxed pragmatist. But Matt Smith runs away with the movie — his Mr Collins is one of the funniest I’ve seen.

There’s an excellent period-set zombie film still to be made out there, but this isn’t it. The zombie elements here are desultory at best. But considering how easily costume dramas can become stodgy pageants, and genre mashups can descend into obnoxious badassery, it’s surprisingly satisfying to just get a lively retelling of a classic romance.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.